LONDON (Reuters) - The first-ever clash between AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons will dominate the FA Cup second round this weekend as another chapter of one of English football’s saddest, but ultimately inspiring tales, is written on Sunday.
Unfashionable Wimbledon, forever remembered for the Crazy Gang and an unlikely FA Cup final giant-killing against Liverpool at Wembley in 1988, were moved 56 miles north of London to Milton Keynes in 2003 and eventually re-named MK Dons.
While there were financial reasons for the unprecedented re-location of an English side away from its home town, angry fans vowed to save the club’s history and formed AFC Wimbledon from scratch in the minor leagues of the game.
After five promotions in eight years, AFC Wimbledon, a club which is owned by a fans’ trust, are now back in the Football League, just one division below MK Dons.
While Sunday’s tie may look like a chance to settle some old scores, AFC’s chief executive Erik Samuelson said most fans will make the trip from south west London with heavy hearts.
“It’s a match of high emotions for our fans,” Samuelson, who has been a key part of the club’s rise from the ashes, told Reuters in the build-up to the match which will be broadcast live on national television, such is the interest surrounding it.
”It’s a very difficult game because for the majority they would rather the game was not being played.
”I’ve spoken to a whole range of people who are going and the feedback I‘m getting is that they really don’t want to go and I don’t want to give (MK Dons) any money but I need to be there to support my team.
“Some are saying that nothing will drag me there under any circumstances. Although that’s a small number,” he added.
“It’s like a bell curve and the large chunk in the middle are going but with heavy hearts.”
In their own way both clubs have been successful since the fateful day in 2001 when Wimbledon’s new chairman Charles Koppel gave the green light for a move to Milton Keynes.
MK Dons, as they have been called since being bought by music entrepreneur Pete Winkelman in 2004, are now playing in front of 7,000 crowds in a purpose-built stadium.
AFC Wimbledon, with their history and trophies restored after MK Dons effectively handed them back in 2007, were promoted back to the Football League in 2011 after a rapid rise through the minor leagues.
They are still effectively without their own ground, however, as they share a ground in nearby Kingston upon Thames, although plans are ongoing to return to their spiritual home in Plough Lane, just a long ball from the stadium in which they ruffled feathers in the top flight in the 1980s.
They still play in the traditional blue and yellow made famous by the Crazy Gang which included the likes of hardman Vinnie Jones, Dennis Wise and Dave Beasant, who famously saved a penalty against Liverpool in the FA Cup final.
“After the uprooting of the league place to Milton Keynes, that’s the least emotional word I can use, here we are, a bunch of fans hopefully opening a new stadium in Plough Lane with a team in the Football League,” said Samuelson, outlining plans to move into Wimbledon greyhound stadium.
The team’s manager Neil Ardley, who played nearly 300 games for the old Wimbledon, has had to deal with a media circus in the build up.
“There is a lot of emotion behind it and a lot of history. It’s unique. I don’t think there is any other game where this has been the case,” he told the BBC.
”Out of bad situations come good situations. I look at this club and it is unbelievable what has been achieved in the last 10 years. There should be a film made about this club.
“For the fans, that’s what this game should be about - how far this club has come through hard work and determination.”
While much good work has been done on the field of play in the last 10 years, relations between the two clubs off it are frosty at best.
“The fans are deciding they don’t want us to go into the boardroom. Therefore, there will be no hand to shake,” Samuelson said.
Winkelman, for his part, believes the club would have gone out of business had it not moved, although he said recently he could understand the continued ill feeling to MK Dons.
“I‘m not proud of the way this club came into being,” he said in a BBC Three Counties Radio interview. “It’s very hard for me to live with that.”
Editing by Alison Wildey